Pay and Benefits Watch: When all else fails, sue

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Judging from a review of recent cases in which federal employees have sued the government to get better pay or benefits, it isn't easy to get Uncle Sam to cough up extra dough.

Take special-rate employees, who are suing for back pay from the mid-1980s. The National Treasury Employees Union is representing the 100,000 current and former federal employees who will get back pay resulting from a final court decision against the government in 1998, following years of appeals. Talks among the union, the Justice Department and the Office of Personnel Management are dragging on, as the sides work out an agreement for the proper formula for determining how much each employee is due and for how to process the settlement claims.

While the employees will win out in the end, the case has been in litigation for 16 years. NTEU first challenged an OPM rule regarding special rates in 1983; five OPM directors and three Presidents have come and gone since the case was first filed. Updates on the case are available at www.nteu.org/specrates.html.

At least the special raters will get something. Federal employees whose agencies placed them in the wrong retirement system tried a couple of years ago to get a court to order the government to compensate them for the errors. But the judge threw the case out. Now the employees have to wait for Congress to pass a new law to get their money. Many of them have known about the benefits blunders for more than five years.

Judges, meanwhile, have had more luck. A July decision found that Congress could not deny judicial raises because that would violate the Constitution. The decision is likely to be appealed, but as it stands, the case holds that salary freezes in 1995, 1996 and 1997 for federal judges were not permissible. The case took two years to reach this point.

If the judges triumph, it may be safe to bet on another set of employees who are suing Uncle Sam: the government's own lawyers. A $500 million class action suit has been filed on behalf of up to 12,000 Justice Department lawyers, who charge that Justice is violating federal law by not paying them overtime wages. U.S. attorneys typically work 52 hours a week, they say, and the government owes them back overtime as well as current wages.

The attorneys' case is now before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Information on the case is at www.dojclass.com. Like some of the other employees who have resorted to litigation, the lawyers are hoping that good things come to those who wait. They've been fighting the department on the overtime issue since at least 1992.

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